A Surf Gal Stab Adores: Leilani McGonagle
Costa Rica’s competitive ball of joy.
Leilani McGonagle is a born and bred Costa Rican but you probably wouldn’t know it.
The blonde-haired, green-eyed goofyfooter speaks perfect English in a Californian twang – likely the result of growing up with her San Clemente raised father, who moved to Central America after high school, founded a small hotel at Pavones, met a traveling missus, and decided to build his life there.
Who can blame?
Leilani, 18, and her brother Noe Mar, 22, are the beneficiaries of their parents’ rejection of American ideals, having resided on the doorstep of a phenomenal lefthander since their earthly inception.
Leilani relishes in all things natural and organic.
Mioko Susanne Joubert
On top of Costa Rica’s stellar waves, the small Pacific-Caribbean nation also boasts the honor of being the world’s “happiest country”, according to the Happy Planet Index (meanwhile the USA ranks 108), which is probably why both Leilani and Noe are so pleasant to converse with.
Oh yeah, and did we mention they’re both globally top-ranked surfers?
While Noe sits at number 53 on the Men’s QS, Leilani, in her first full year on the tour, finished 18th on the rankings, putting her in a good position to qualify next year.
We wanted to learn more about this passionate Tica, so we gave Leilani a call while she was on the Afro-European leg of her tour. Despite the time difference, she happily accepted our late-night ring.
Note: this interview took place several months ago.
As colored by the incessant Costa Rican sun.
Mioko Susanne Joubert
Stab: Hey Leilani, how are you? Everything going well on your trip?
Leilani McGonagle: I’m good, thanks! And yeah, it’s been interesting. I got a ninth in Spain and a fifth in Morocco – not quite the results I was looking for, but that’s okay. This is my first year really doing the QS, so I’m just trying to do my best and learn from every event.
But you did win an event this year.
Yes, Barbados, that was amazing! I had a bad string of results before that, and it’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re not competing to your own potential, but to bounce back and win an event like that gave me the confidence to realize that I can actually do this. And my results have improved a lot since then.
Tell me about Costa Rica! I’m sure growing up in that magical land must have had a big impression on you as not just a surfer, but a human being also.
Oh, I love my country. It means everything to me. It’s shaped me as a person, completely. And my surfing is a result of growing up at one of the best waves in the world. But despite how many good surfers we have, there’s not quite as much recognition in our country, so it’s hard to get noticed on a world scale and make a name for yourself. I really look up to people like my brother [Noe Mar] and Carlos [Munoz] who have helped pave the way for surfers like me.
Buckets will be thrown.
We also heard that you’ve grown up with a pretty severe case of scoliosis. How has that affected you?
Yeah, I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was 11. I have a double major curve in my spine, and they’re both like 60 degrees off-line, which is bad, but I’ve been dealing with it for a long time so I know how it works. It was recommended that I get surgery but we decided against that, and instead I wore a brace up until a year ago. Now I just do yoga, and that’s actually been really helpful, as I’ve learned a lot about my body and its alignment. It’s almost like a blessing in disguise. I’m definitely more in tune with my body than I think a lot of people are.
Were you able to reverse any of the damage with the brace and yoga?
Mmm not really… because it’s two curves, if I start correcting one, the other gets worse. So without surgery it’s basically non-reversible.
How does this affect your surfing?
Thankfully I’ve never had any pain from it, because we caught it at a really young age and started working on it right away. It was more of a learning curve than anything. I’ve never known my back to be any other way, so I guess it doesn’t affect my surfing at all [laughs].
Nature is the best filter of them all.
Mioko Susanne Joubert
That’s good! Now, growing up in a place like Costa Rica, and especially at Pavones, must make it difficult to leave home and chase points in mediocre waves.
Sometimes yes, but the excitement of competition and that feeling of victory – there’s just nothing like it. It can be frustrating when the waves are bad, because you know you have so much more to showcase, but to succeed in surfing you have to be able to perform in every type of condition, and I’m committed to making the CT some day.
And in the near future? What have you got going on after the events over there?
After this I’m going on a Rip Curl trip to Bali with some of the girls! I’ve never been to Bali, but I’ve been wanting to go for forever I’m so excited.
What are your thoughts on the Olympics? It was recently revealed that surfers from smaller nations will have a good shot at getting in. Is that in your sights for 2020?
Yes, one-hundred percent! The Olympics is such a great opportunity – I feel like it’s going to help open the rest of the world’s eyes to how beautiful surfing is and recognize that it’s filled with hard working athletes just like any other sport.
Leilani’s certainly put her time in.
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